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Embodied Rhythm in Space and Time: A Poem and a Sculpture.


In this article, we outline the concept of rhythm as an embodied, lived experience within the production and perception of an artwork. In our research, we combine perspectives from the production of art as well as the reception of art, in this case sculpture and poetry.

Before we look into the question of embodied rhythm we must look closer at the general concepts of rhythm in an artwork. A simple definition of "rhythm" often has been something like "recurring motion," but it is more complicated than that. One way of answering the question of what constitutes rhythm could be found in its negation, "what is un-rhythmic?" The answer could be "what lacks a demarcation or structure." Rhythm is lacking where there is chaos and emptiness, when the direction of a composition becomes unclear and confused, forms losing their context (Hopsch Rytmens Estetik 10-11).

Rhythm, therefore, can be seen as providing structure for a composition, and the general meaning of rhythmos is something measured, ordered. This sense of the word--measured movement, measured time--is found, for example, in Democritus, fifth century BC. In his dialogue The Laws, Plato describes the rhythm of the dancing body in terms of "organized movement"--rhythm, with reference to music, is produced by the fast and the slow, from the onset in disagreement but later on unified. With Plato's definition in mind, aesthetic rhythm could be understood as a play with proportions in time or space in an artwork. In spatial art forms, rhythm concerns proportions and tensions between different parts of the picture, sculpture, or facade. In temporal arts, like music and poetry, rhythm structures the stronger and weaker parts in the course of sounds.

With the body as a point of departure, we can achieve general experiences and common denominators for how we compose rhythm in a work of art. Rhythm exists in the perception, production, and reception of an artwork. The experience of rhythm has some basic properties that we will demonstrate in this article, regardless of styles, modes, and discourses. Rhythm is seen as a perceptual activity triggered by lived experience. We will follow the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who in his Phenomenology of Perception points at how we can only understand spatiality through our own bodily movements in space (Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception 162; Hopsch, Rytmens Estetik 21). More than that, Johnson, in his well-known book The Body in the Mind, shows how abstract notions in language, such as balance, have their root in bodily experiences (Johnson, The Body in the Mind 79). Rhythm is related to so-called cognitive schemas, structuring information (Johnson, The Body in the Mind 73,85). One such schema is "balance." We will, in the next section, discuss the concept of balance and its importance for rhythm.

After discussing balance and rhythm, we will define the key concepts FORCE, DIRECTION, and BALANCE. After the basic definitions, a presentation of a Heaney poem follows, a poem that will accompany us through the theoretical prerequisites. We will introduce our basic theory, and continue with the topic of premodality--sculpture and poetry are different modalities but their rhythms respectively emanate from the premodal state of the interpretation process. (1) Art studies must investigate this process--here in our section about "Gesture and Signification". Finally, Lena presents an analysis of her own sculpture "Space Modulator" before the conclusion.


The concept of "rhythm" is basic to all forms of art. It is commonly used in descriptions of music, poetry, sculpture, and painting. Sometimes, however, "rhythm" seems to be too broad a concept to really say anything important about a piece of art. There is certainly need for a more precise definition like the one we here have ventured. Further, the same concept is used to describe music, poetry, sculpture, and painting, but we need to consider whether "rhythm" refers to the same phenomenon in all these cases. In this article, we explore aesthetic rhythm as a tool for attaining a better understanding of different art forms, as "rhythm" is seen as a form of perception that governs the interpretation as well as the production of artifacts. In particular, we will consider the art forms of sculpture and poetry, Lena Hopsch from the perspective of producing art, and Eva Lilja from the perspective of reception analysis.

Another core concept is gestalt or gesture. Rhythm takes place within a gestalt, where activities aiming at equilibrium clash with displacements creating motion (Tsur, Poetic Rhythm 51,76,83,86,303f.). The very best example of a gestalt is the human body with its distinct limits, the body that looks and moves in different directions. Conflicting form elements create tension and imbalance, but the whole artifact demonstrates some kind of balance. Much of the motion in a gestalt emanates from asymmetric sequences--unbalanced within themselves but gallantly balancing each other. The gestalt might be considered as a gesture, a form with significance. Merleau-Ponty, for example, designates speech a gesture (Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception 208, 214).

The image of a tight rope walker may serve to clarify our perspective as each step on the tight rope involves losing one's balance and then catching it again. This is in fact what we all practice every day as we walk on firm ground. For every step, a force draws the body forwards, and to avoid falling and retain balance, our body's momentum has to be counteracted. As tight rope walking shows, equilibrium is not something static; instead it is balance at work.

What is the connection between the tight rope walker and a poem? Further, what are the similarities between sculpture and poetry in terms of rhythmic composition? A sculpture, more obviously relating to the human body, balances its sequences into a wholeness of equilibrium. However, the poem also performs a balancing act, in the course of its forward direction.

The moving body can thus be regarded as a prototype for our discussion of aesthetic rhythm, as it continuously stages the interplay between the experience of movement and balance. In Ancient Athens, the dancing choir in the orchestra moved and recited at the same time. The ancient Greeks did not differentiate between the art forms; they were regarded as one and the same, mousike (Lonsdale 6; Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception 214, 226; Johnson, The Body in the Mind 80, 88). We claim that the bodily experience of balance is the most important element in aesthetic rhythm--the memory of the dancing or walking body in equilibrium. Proprioception is the sense that controls the sensory experience of the self in one body--to be "in balance" means a calm and collected mind.

There are, however, differences between different kinds of perception. Some senses are spatially oriented, others are temporal in character. Visual assimilation prefers the whole form. Looking at a sculpture, you will take it in as a whole and only later notice its details. The opposite holds for temporal art forms like poetry--the ear prefers the segment, and it will take some time to catch the whole poem. In what follows, we investigate how cognitive patterns and embodied experience play crucial parts when we produce and perceive aesthetic rhythm.


We said that aesthetic rhythms activate internalized bodily experiences, thus creating signification. Biorhythms are of special interest. Walking, especially, seems to shape rhythmic patterns. What powers are involved here? (See, e.g., Pourcel) We would like to focus on force as gravity, direction, and balance. All these concepts--or experiences--also appear as so-called "image schemas," mental patterns that were first discussed in Johnson's The Body in the Mind. According to Johnson, basic bodily experiences create perceptional schemas, which have been widely discussed (see, e.g., Hampe, From Perception to Meaning 29).

We will suggest that "balance" and "direction" are the two schemas that underlie aesthetic rhythm. Both are regarded as emanations of a more general schema, the FORCE schema. This seems to be more basic and complicated than most others, something that is easy to understand if we consider that the experience of FORCE is primarily the result of gravity in our bodies. This very basic experience creates patterns for how we are able to conceive the world (Johnson, The Body in the Mind 42-48; Hampe 2). The FORCE schema has some characteristics, like degrees of intensity and directionality (Johnson, The Body in the Mind 43f.). Common FORCE structures that operate constantly in our experience are compulsion, blockage, and the counterforce structure with its two directions (Johnson, The Body in the Mind 45-47).

Of special interest for aesthetic rhythm is the subgroup of directionality, the path schema with its origin, distance, and goal (Johnson, The Body in the Mind 45). You are always walking in some direction. Transferred to aesthetic experience this is about dynamic motion, moving from something weaker into something stronger, from the resting arm of a sculpture into the arm of a gesture, and in the poem from its unstressed parts into the stressed part. In the path schema, we come close to the basic experience of walking. This is the dynamic rhythm at work (Hopsch and Lilja, "Principles of Rhythm" 364). In a picture, like the Kandinsky painting, there are at least two dynamic structures. Most of the lines are directed from left below up to the right, but the dominating form is the dark circle in the upper left corner, and the eye has to orientate itself in that direction (Figure 2). (2)

We think that the BALANCE schema is even more important for the experience of aesthetic rhythm, and the tight rope walker is our chosen illustration. You interpret your perceptions according to your experience of balance--if the actual impressions are similar to this pattern. Body balance and the basic experience of balance result in perceptions organized according to a balance pattern (Johnson, The Body in the Mind 96). "Balance" is a balance of forces in perceptual activity (Johnson, The Body in the Mind 79). In the Kandinsky painting, there is a balance point in the very middle of the surface (Johnson, The Body in the Mind 97). Forces and weights around an axis or point both counteract and balance each other--thus producing rhythm (Figure 3; figure based on Johnson, The Body in the Mind 86).

"Balance" brings about a dynamic play of forces, which also involves symmetry and repetition--mostly not a perfect symmetry but equivalent repetitions. This dynamic play of forces around an axis in practice means a kind of standing still, as forces keep directions in balance, as we saw looking at the tight rope walker. There is a delicate play between going somewhere and halting--this play establishes rhythm, we would say. We can see this phenomenon work in different pieces of art, as in the Kandinsky picture, and in our analyses. We regard this kind of halting or slowness as a typical characteristics of the arts, something that also delays reception. (3) The form elements relate to balance as well as the lack of balance aiming at symmetry and asymmetry at the same time. "Rhythm," we suggest, should be seen as a happy contrast between balance and movement.

Our way of understanding "balance" in a piece of art comes close to Roman Jakobson's "theory of Equivalence." There seems to be a mental process seeking a temporary homeostasis (Johnson, The Body in the Mind 88), and this homeostasis or balance would mean a steady return of equivalent unities, something that Jakobson names the very quality of poetry (Jakobson).


Here we will present Seamus Heaney's poem "Sloe Gin." How does rhythm work in this modernist poem? Let us see what active forces can be found here. The reader may recognize them from his own body.

This poem is a realistic description around a central image. It describes how to brew sloe schnapps in a rural household, and later on, when winter has arrived, the pleasure of tasting it. The poem lives on its exquisite sensory impressions and its dominating image, the drink. The subject of the poem speaks to a "you," who may be the reader. This reader may add his own memories of sloes to the text. We will use these poetic rhythms to exemplify our theses about aesthetic rhythm.

The versification seems at a first glance to be traditional, using the four-line stanza. At the same time, its rhythm is free and modernist. The speech rhythm also reminds us of the Middle Age four-beat line, but here the lines are shorter--with only 1-3 stresses. However, just as in the old form, rhythm comes close to ordinary speech, using 0-3 unstressed syllables between stresses. The four-line stanza also connects this poem to the Middle Age ballad. You might say that Heaney mixes modernist free rhythms with some devices from old popular forms.

As we have seen, according to Jakobson, equivalences would be the very quality of poetry. What returning elements are to be found in the rhythm of this poem? Well, there are some alternating rows (in stanza 1 and 3), a couple of enjambments (l. 6 and 14), and some significant spondees or molossuses (l. 1,14, and 15).


In Philosophy in the Flesh, George Lakoff and Johnson classify three "Levels of Embodiment," neurology, phenomenological experience, and what they refer to as "the cognitive subconscious," by which they mean mental processes for understanding (Lakoff and Johnson 103). (4) We may also remember John Deely's Kantian proposal that our conception of the world is relational, it exists in a relation between materiality and its representations (Deely).

What can this focus on cognition and perception add to our understanding of art production and reception? Perceptions carry information that will be handled by cognitive processes. Aesthetically important here are experience (what you already know) and attention (what is in the moment). In the light of cognitive psychology, the mind looks like a heterogeneous collection of processes combined in a network (Varela et al. 107). (5) What we consider to be intentional acts have turned out as fuzzy dynamic processes in interplay between brain, body, and environment. Actions seem to emanate out of instinctive choices between subconscious patterns (Gibbs 74).

Examples of cognitive activities include conceptualization, decisionmaking, problem-solving, perception, and memory (Varela 46). When considering art production and reception further processes should be added, such as associations, values, wishes, and fantasy (Gabrielsson 458). These cognitive processes should be understood as arising from organic processes (Johnson and Rohrer 17), (6) stemming from the biology of the body, the psychology of the mind, as well as from the surrounding culture (Varela 173). In Merleau-Ponty's words, referring to the French poet Paul Valery, the "painter takes his body with him" (Maurice, "Eye and Mind" 162).

Cognitive philosophy draws the conclusion that our minds are shaped by experience (Lakoff and Johnson 103). Understanding the room you are in as well as the objects around you depends on the anticipation of their sensory consequences (Gibbs 69). The ability to anticipate comes from experience, and, from this point of view, the body might be considered as a structure of experiences (Varela xvi).

Cognitive schemas or image schemas are mental mechanisms that form our experience of the world (Johnson, The Body in the Mind). We have already considered the schemas of FORCE, DIRECTION, and BALANCE and their origin in experience. Let us apply them to the poem. Remember that DIRECTION and BALANCE are two kinds of FORCE. The poem begins with a mixture of a light-footed alternation (every second syllable is a stress) and heavy balancing parts. Let us look at line 3-4:
She fed gin to sloes              2   ooOoO

and sealed the glass container.   3   oOoOoOo

The later line has three iambs oO, and the first line is also rising in direction. (7) Motion has a forward direction in these two lines. There is a possible very light stress on "She" that keeps contact with an alternating underlying rhythm. This alternation comes close to a bodily walking rhythm--there are courses of words and courses of steps, and the time span, half a second, is about the same for an iamb and for the completed step. (8)

The experience of perceived rhythm can be specified to repeated sensorimotor patterns. (9) Walking is such a pattern that really could be said to be repeated. Compare with the alternating rhythm (in parts) of the Heaney poem. For example, human beings normally walk every day to an extent that turns walking into a pattern of experience that shapes our understanding of the world around us. In this way, cognition from a certain perspective is very embodied (Varela 172 f.).

The phenomenological concept of focused attention is significant here (Schmarsow, "The Essence of Architectural Creation" 285). Attention in this context also refers to dedication, because the human subject in the process of art production as well as in the process of reception is directed to the object, the artifact. In practice, this dedicated attention eliminates the opposition between subject and object. Reading "Sloe Gin" will enchant the reader in a way that transforms him to a gin imbiber for a moment.


In this section, we will discuss some requirements for uniting temporal and spatial rhythm into a common concept of aesthetic rhythm. We have already introduced the form schemas of perception, the so-called image schemas, recurrent preconceptual gestalt structures that operate in our bodily movements, perceptual acts, orientational awareness, and cognitive processes (Johnson, Tbe Body in the Mind 75, 79). Another precondition is the biorhythms, where we already have pointed at walking as a dominant rhythm. We have already noticed that sculpture and poetry are two modalities--one works in space and the other in time.

Biorhythms in the Mind

The human body is rhythmical--one needs only to think of heartbeat, breathing, and not least walking. In this way, experience of rhythms seems to emanate out of the realities of the body. Perhaps the same circumstances are valid for thinking, fantasy, and memory? The body might be looked upon as kind of phenomenological zero, or maybe rather as a sensory field. The body takes its place in the room, but the room will also be projected out of the mind. The body is living as well as lived, from the inside and out, and has to be the starting point for all possible analyses (Wallenstein 29. See also Zlatev, Situated Embodiment 6).

Here we compare a cognitive view with a phenomenological perspective. Merleau-Ponty reflects that a body is both a physical structure and lived experience, representing two aspects of bodily reality in play. Human cognition is inseparable from bodily abilities--there is no other possibility (Varela xv). Even conceptualization is dependent on sensorimotor experience (Lakoff and Johnson 16-44. See also Gallagher 14). An embodied concept is basically a neural structure that is part of, or makes use of, the sensorimotor system of our brains (Lakoff and Johnson 20). It is hence possible to claim that aesthetic rhythms, in a first step, are formed in accordance with human biorhythms such as walking, dancing, pulse, sex, and breathing. Of course, in a next step they are processed by culture, environment, and tradition. Perceived world and person are mutually defined through bodily and cultural experience (Varela 172; Sonesson 110f.).

Poem and Sculpture

The tight rope walker is a body in balance--he or she is an ideal of perfect rhythmical balance. A sculpture, in a way, is a body as well. It is considerably more difficult to determine whether a poem can be likened to a body. (10) It could be argued that the poem, like the sculpture, has a visible body--taking the form of print, letters, and paper. Listening to a poem, you also enjoy an acoustic body. Furthermore, the body of the poem is shaped through "the cognitive processes by which a literary work is created and understood. Understanding is embodied, ... signification, imagination, and reasoning have a physical basis in our experience of the world" (Freeman 43). We draw the conclusion that the poem just as the sculpture is a kind of body or a material object.

This phenomenon will be further underlined considering the perception process of reading a rhythm. We have already mentioned that looking at a sculpture will take some time, and that a poem has spatial qualities. Gestalts are found both in time and in space--two forms of perception that are not dichotomous. In the perceptual process, the gestalt is first acknowledged as it is closed, so-called back-structuring (Tsur, Poetic Rhythm 302f.). The rhythmic gestalt is in practice both anticipated and back-structured--a temporal lapse apprehended as a spatial one as we can see in the second stanza of the Heaney poem. In the beginning of the stanza, some understanding of how the rhythm will proceed is given, and in the end the reader completes it with an understanding of the whole form. The temporal and spatial lapses of reading coordinate the establishment of rhythm. Let us look at stanza 2 in "Sloe Gin."
When I unscrewed it          o O o O o

I smelled the disturb        o O oo O >

tart stillness of a bush     OO ooo O

rising through the pantry.   O ooo O o

This stanza makes a rather stable rhythm in only one sentence. One intonation curve keeps it together in one acoustic body. The slight alternation in the beginning promotes a reading that lasts until the end. The three stresses just in the middle of the stanza (0>00) is the emphasized part (or prolongation goal) and what comes before will be perceived as an anticipation and what follows as an extension (Cureton 146-53). This composition, however, can only be understood when you have completed the whole form (Tsur, Poetic Rhythm 302f.). lhe gestalt must be closed before it can be fully perceived, and the temporal lapse spatialized.

Back-structuring also explains a detail in Jakobson's thinking in equivalences, namely why the second rhyme word evidently keeps the first one alive in the reading mind. If you think of the rhyming line pair as a closed gestalt, it is obvious that two similar parts of this gestalt go together according to the gestalt law of similarity (Tsur, Poetic Rhythm 303).

Gestalts and Image Schemas

In the definition section we introduced the concept of image schema, and how it promotes the construction of rhythm in an art work. Image schemas provide models that turn the artifact into gestalts, patterns aiming at coherence and significance (Rohrer 171,173). Of course, the choice of schema happens instinctively, influenced by the reminiscence of some bodily movement as well as by environment and memory (Gibbs 74). You will never notice sensory impulses that do not fit into schemas--eyes and ears have seen and heard them, but they are never realized and therefore they get lost (Lilja, Poesiens Rytmik 97f). This was very evident when we carefully measured the acoustics of some metered poetry and compared the registrations to the notations made by listeners. They differed considerably (Lilja, Svensk Metrik 79f.).

The image schema gives form to the gestalt. As already said, the very best example of a gestalt is the human body with its distinct limits. A century ago, gestalt psychology established the so-called gestalt laws--referring primarily to visual gestalts (Ash 133). Obviously, impressions are grouped to attain coherence, be it the same color or form, or perhaps closeness or similar direction. Time also contributes to gestalts through such features as vicinity and similarity. A sculpture is a gestalt just like the poem, and both are composed by sets of smaller gestalts (Tsur, Poetic Rhythm 51, 294).

Scholars have classified about twenty-five strong schemas that also have subordinated patterns (Hampe, "Image Schemas in Cognitive Linguistics" 2; Lakoff and Johnson 16-44). Cognitive schemas also contribute to directing human attention (Johnson and Rohrer 32f.). When you register perceptions with the help of measuring instruments, for example, the acoustics of a poem, a difference will be noted between what is objectively measured and what is apprehended. Something happens in the passage into the mind--as cognitive schemas or image schemas act as a kind of filter in the perception apparatus (Lilja, Svensk Metrik 78f; Poesiens Rytmik 93).

Bodily movements are the origin of psychological forces in a perceptual play between bodily processes and conscious acts (Johnson, Body in the Mind 85). Psychological patterns structure our perceptions and give them coherence--this holds for form as well as meaning of an art work. This structuring is preconceptual, says Johnson, and here we will add that it must be premodal as well, that is structured before the entering of modalities (Johnson, Body in the Mind 74).

We have defined aesthetic rhythm as a play between perceived direction and perceived balance within the gestalts of an art work. These gestalts heavily depend on the image schemas of perception, and these schemas to a great extent are determined by bodily experience (Johnson, Body in the Mind 87).

The Moment of Form

An image schema stands for bodily experiences that are transferred into stable patterns of perception. (11) The experiences of the body create stable schemas adding unity and signification to new encounters. These schemas adapt the world to the human being, thereby organizing the interplay between mind and world. The growing literature about image schemas is concentrated on issues such as concepts, classification, cause, and other subjects related to signification. However, the significance of form in this process has been overlooked. Here we focus on the moment of form in the perception process:

Johnson and others: Schema > form > signification

Hopsch & Lilja: Schema > form > signification

The schema orders form components as well as components of cultural meaning. Leaning on the experience of biorhythms the form aspect must be primary. Heaney's third stanza describes the satisfaction of the "I" looking at the result of his brewing:
When I poured it        1   oo O o

it had a cutting edge   2   ooo O o O

and flamed              1   o O

like Betelgeuse.        2   o O o O

Here we meet patterns of culture as well as of form. Semantic meaning tells us about the beauty of the drink, and the rhythm is most particular--short lines, few stresses and a directed climax in 1.11-12. Cultural traditions supply knowledge about household and drinking habits. The form is also full of significance of other kinds, such as feeling and attitude. In this stanza, rhythm is even, concentrated, and rising. There is a contrast between the rural environment and the exquisite quality of both the rhythm and the metaphor, the flaming dark red star.

As we emphasize, form qualities precede semantic meaning in the course of reading. This is the case also standing in front of a sculpture.

Premodal Patterns

"Modality" can be defined as sign systems or technologies for representation. Lars Ellestrom distinguishes between four kinds of modality--material, sensorial, spatiotemporal, and semiotic modality (Ellestrom 15). Our examples, a poem and a sculpture, illustrate the spatiotemporal level, where time and space interact--but in two different ways. Sculpture uses only three dimensions, width, height, depth, while poetry also needs a fourth one, time (Ellestrom 19). As noted, the time dimension is interwoven with spatial qualities. Lakoff and Johnson refer this phenomenon to the conceptualization of motion--motion takes place in space, and time will be conceptualized in terms of motion (Lakoff and Johnson 140). (12) We have noticed that the perception process adds time also to the sculpture. However, a poem and a sculpture differ when it comes to the material and sensorial modalities.

Here we have discussed some requirements to unite temporal and spatial rhythm into a common concept of aesthetic rhythm. Image schemas structure our perceptions and give them coherence. Back-structuring decides the perceptual process, and the gestalt is only acknowledged as it is closed. Analyzing the rhythms of a sculpture and a poem, we have used the same tools. The same patterns seem to be valid for all art forms--or at least sculpture and poetry. Schemas occur before a differentiation takes place into visual, audible, and tactile forms. (13) This means that spatial and temporal rhythms basically are the same.

The experience of bodily balance is the base for a perception pattern of balance. In front of a piece of art one will recognize the qualities of bodily balance (Johnson, The Body in the Mind 89, 99). Look again at the tight rope walker on page 416. This is a body in balance. The Kandinsky picture on page 418 is a surface in balance--the tense stability of the tight rope walker is here transferred into the modalities of a painting.

The last stanza of the Heaney poem is also very balanced in rhythm. It begins with two iambs oO oO in 1. (13), but goes on with an extreme number of stresses in the next line pair:
     I drink to you              o O o O

14   in smoke-mirled, blue- >    o OO / O >

     black sloes, bitter >       OO / O o

16   and dependable.             oo O oo

Lines 14-15 are connected by an enjambment, and we may note them as follows if we do not consider the small pauses: o OOOOOO o. So many stresses in a row clearly differ from the speech rhythm that characterizes most of the poem. If these lines are extremely heavy, the very last line 16 is very light:

Of its five syllables only one is stressed. Line 16 balances just like 1.14-15. The whole stanza is in balance with a very heavy axis and a light anticipation as well as extension. Once again, this is similar to the tense stability of the tight rope walker. What does this add to the meaning of the poem? Well, the stanza is emphasized. This is the very end of the poem and it also means full stop. But resting at the description of the drink--flaming red as we have heard--this double molossus (OOO OOO) produces a broken mood and connects with another ambiguous passage, the tart smell of l. 6-7. (14)
and dependable.       oo O oo


A work of art always signifies something. We do not primarily refer to lexical signification, but rather to more hidden ways of producing meaning. The body has silent methods to color life with feelings, attitudes, and bodily memories from early childhood, basic to all forms of signification. In this context, biorhythms play a prominent part (Sonesson 115,120).

Signification primarily emanates out of the gestalt--the sculpture or part of it, the verse line or the whole poem. A gestalt may be described as a closed, pregnant form with clear limits. It is shaped with the help of cognitive schemas. Look at the "Space Modulator" (p. 435), a bundle of small gestalts moving inside a bigger one, creating a rhythm. You may also look at the Heaney poem "Sloe Gin" (p. 419), where every phrase is a small gestalt within the closed stanza. Once you have apprehended the whole form, it will be almost impossible to change your view of it--a stable rhythm will not give room for alternatives (Lilja, Poesiens Rytmik 21).

As already said, every rhythm is a gestalt with qualities that were thoroughly discussed within gestalt psychology a century ago. The gestalt laws tell us how to understand movements and directions in pictures and facades, in music and poems. Balances and directions create signification when they manipulate (the perception of) time and space.

If we instead choose to talk about gesture, we add communication as an aspect of the gestalt. The gesture is to be apprehended as an act of signification. It is part of a communication between producer and recipient--it says something (Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception 226). And a piece of art always signifies because art by definition signifies--signification is the purpose of art (Madsen 32f.). (15) The gesture might be defined as a gestalt with signification, or in other words, a limited movement is a gestalt is a gesture. (16) What kind of qualities may a gesture signify? We notice things like rest and energy, rapidity, emphasis, forward direction, and the halt at a limit. All these qualities are also aspects of rhythm. Progression as well as stress relates to apprehended direction--this observation is relevant for sculpture as well as for poetry and music (Stougaard Pedersen 103f.). Kandinsky elaborated a theory for gestures or signs on a plane (Kandinsky 131-35). In his paintings, the shapes on the canvas are looked upon as gestures, expressions of freedom and imprisonment, safety, and creativity. (17)

We have constructed a model for rhythmic signification in four steps:

* The element of form involves movement

* This movement has a certain character

* This character in turn has a specific affect

* This affect is specified according to the context

In the next section, we will demonstrate how this model works in the Heaney poem.

Gestures in "Sloe Gin"

The production of signification takes place within the gestalt. The whole of the poem is a gestalt, just as the whole of the human body. In this case, we have four stanzas all ending with a full stop--they distinctly form four gestalts. And within stanzas we find the play of phrase rhythms in the lines, a bundle of gestures. To compare, the human body is equipped with arms and legs, fingers and toes.

Let us repeat the model for rhythmic signification. The meaning production of rhythm emanates out of 1. a movement that is recognized from one's own body. This movement has 2. a character with 3. a feeling. In a last step, the rhythmic affect should be 4. adjusted to the semantic level of the poem. As a temporal art form, the poem is a sequence containing smaller sequences.

(1) In the rhythm of "Sloe Gin," we may first notice a movement--in this poem we have registered a soft forward movement twice broken by stamping and standing molossuses (OOO). Stanza 1 and 3 are dominated by easy-going alternation that comes close to ordinary speech--and to walking if it comes to that. Stanza 2 and 4, however, are constructed differently. An anticipation rises up to an axis, a concentration of stresses, and after that fading out in an extension. This poem moves in two waves, where the repetition (stanza 3-4) is more emphatic. Twice an increasing movement ends with a stop--something that easily might be recognized from your bodily experiences.

(2) In the second step of the model, a movement has a character--and concerning this poem we have already spoken of lightness, everyday speech and an easy-going forward direction of stanza 1 and 3. The molossus parts--one of them with double the figure--are most of all very heavy. They rest in balance.

(3) To the third step. We have registered different kinds of movement in

Stanza 1-2: alternation + anticipation-axis/molossus-extension Stanza 3-4: " " " " "

the rhythm of the poem, and these have conforming affectual qualities. The light-footed parts radiate pure joy--the pleasure in life and beauty and tasty drinks. Especially stanza 3 moves in springy steps with a quality of hilarity. The stressed passages of stanza 2 and 4, however, brings the easy movements to rest.

(4) The semantic level--the fourth step--complicates the delight at the beautiful drink even if it does not suspend it. In 1. 6-7, its smell is said to "disturb" and it is "tart"--a heavy smell and not so pleasant. Line 15 calls the drink "bitter" in contrast to its red flames in stanza 3. Some gulf is hinted at with the help of the extremely stressing double molossus, but in the end the light-hearted 1.16 saves the complex mood with its suggestion that the drink is "dependable." (18)

Here we have chosen to follow walking rhythms like rushing, jumping, and stopping. But, of course, many other body rhythms can be traced in a poem like "Sloe Gin." Thereby time limits are important. Alternation calls for the pulse--the time span is around half a second, the same as the small eco memory of the brain. Breathing has a time span that often comes close to an ordinary verse line of about ten syllables. These three seconds are in accordance with the time limit of the short time memory (Turner and Poppel, see also Poppel; Trevarthen). The lines of "Sloe Gin" are much shorter, and the discrepancy makes the rhythm easy-going.

In the following analysis of a sculpture, we have also preferred to use the walking rhythms. The perception of the rhythm in a sculpture starts with the whole thing but precedes in time for its details.

Focused Attention

The sculpture "Space Modulator" is a part of Hopsch's research on spatially embodied rhythm and connects to the form experiments of the Bauhaus school (Hopsch Rytmens Estetik, 2002 and 2008).In this tradition, basic geometric forms were used in order to establish a basic language for artistic composition. Dance was also used both as a pedagogical tool and as an artistic way of expression in efforts to investigate shapes and space.19 The bodily analogy and experience were used as a part of the creative act. The body was examined, both the artist's and the dancer's, as a tool--contributing to practicing focused attention.

When Kandinsky investigates the shapes on a surface, these can also be seen as if they were bodies in a space. The border between subject and object is eliminated through aesthetic attention, which was very much in focus in the pedagogy of the Bauhaus school.

In the sculpture, "Space Modulator" composed within a constructed spatial volume, the floor--the basic surface--is a degree zero, a base for the perception of depth and space. The floor is the space that spreads out around you, not before you, as Merleau-Ponty puts it. Merleau-Ponty also underlines that the understanding of what is spatial is also consummated through action. What is spatial can only be understood through movement. In the act of sculpturing, it is the experience of moving in a space that shapes signification. It is human verticality in relation to the floor's horizontal surface that composes the appropriation of sculpture. To this we may also add the material and construction of the sculpture.

In spatial rhythm, the floor is a starting point for the body's erect procedure through space, and for our understanding of directions. It is also a starting point for the moving body on a surface. In this way the floor is a prerequisite for the human sense of body, a degree zero for perception (Schmarsow, Grundbegriffe der Kunstwissenschaft 182).

Movement plays a central role for the subject's ability to define and experience space. lhe body's spatial movements are the basis for perceiving space in the first place (Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception 112-69). This has been verified more recently by cognitive psychologist Raymond Gibbs, who points out that "[a]ll sensory processing depends on a structural coupling of perception and action as part of the brain, body and world dynamical interaction" (Gibbs 49). The phenomenological and the cognitive perspectives meet, as the body is perceived as a phenomenological degree zero and a sensory field, where the body not only occupies the room, but where the room is projected from the subject's inside. I experience my body from the inside and this works as a starting point for all other descriptions of space (Wallenstein 32).

Embodied Rhythm

In what follows we will analyze the composition of the sculptural objects named "Space Modulator" by Hopsch (Figure 7). "Space Modulator" consists of a visualization of a dance movement--a play with imbalance and balance of forms. The shapes are surrounded by an outer enclosing space-reminiscent of the book page of the poem where the segments, signs, or forms relate to the page.

Generally, shapes on a surface will be experienced as bodily movements in a constructed space. This idea was spread in the teachings of the Bauhaus school, during the 1920s. The sculptor Oskar Schlemmer experimented with dance to visualize early modernist aesthetic ideas in his Bauhaus Buhne--and we recognize these thoughts in both Kandinsky's and Klee's paintings. Dancers dressed in sculptural costumes at the Bauhaus Buhne participated in Oscar Schlemmer's choreographies. In the "Triadic Ballet," the dancers' bodies in space explored form, color, and shape, letting the audience experience forms and their spatial relationships. The choreography was performed between the years 1916-1929, spreading the ethos of Bauhaus. However, this dance performance still inspires contemporary artists and dancers.

Starting from the simple step, Hopsch used her own bodily kinesthetic experience while studying the dancer. The study was carried out in collaboration with a choreographer and a tight rope dancer (see Figures 1 and 4). Hopsch transformed the bodily expressions of the dancer into spatial direction, tension, movement, and balance interpreting these in an abstract volume, a space modulator (see Figure 5). The space modulator consisted of an abstract volume of space in which Hopsch introduced similar objects such as square boards composed around an imaginary spatial axis (axis balance, see p. 418).

By using the basic spatial elements of point--line--plane-- and volume (adopted from the Bauhaus School) together with balance, direction, and movement--the distribution of centers of gravity could be composed (the impact of the point), since movement occurs as a result of a shift in point of balance. As in losing one's balance and catching it again.

This study investigates and demonstrates, with the aid of the body, how spatial direction, movement, and balance can be used as an instrument for creating form, and how spatial rhytmization facilitates the reading of an overall configuration, a gestalt. The poem is both temporal and spatial as well as the sculpture. In our study, we depart from one's own body being both in space and in time.

Force and Balance

Dance can be considered a bodily gesture, and inspired by dance, it is important to recognize movement as forces at play (Johnson, The Body in the Mind 42). Figure 5 shows how the first ideas for the sculpture "Space Modulator" were drawn. The task to graphically notate the embodied gesture of the dance movement in a way that creates resemblance between the experienced bodily movement and its graphical expression is a challenging cognitive act. Designing a pattern by drawing involves both the gesture of the hand and production-related embodied knowledge in a perceptual process. According to Gibbs, perception and action may be two aspects of one and the same neural and cognitive process (Gibbs 58). Mirror neurons may also play a part in this process since it is presumed that they are involved both when observing and performing action, as well as in the mental simulation of action (Gibbs 49). This theory involves an understanding of bodily motion as a kind of empathetic embodied cognition (Gibbs 53).

Bodily movement is transformed via the gesture. For Merleau-Ponty, the body itself is gesture and thus includes a kind of language (Merleau-Ponty, 2005, 226). Figure 6 represents a schema for a language of form built upon the cognitive schema of force--an interpretation of movement as a spatial, semiotic sign. The schema also includes temporal aspects, including time lapses, and could be used also for literary art.

Forms may incorporate interpretation or translation from one medium to another--from dance movement, to drawing and to sculptural object. This ability to work with the same ideas in different media is one of the key cores of artistic production--and depends on the premodal character of cognitive schemas. The artist invents her/his own semiotic language.

In "Space Modulator," the sculptural expression of a dance movement is transformed into spatial rhythm. The forms, if read from left to right in a sequence, move from instable to a stable balance. Unstable forms are experienced as lighter than the stable ones, the latter being perceived as heavier.

The space that surrounds shapes makes them visible as forms, but also contributes to limit the sequence to its own particular gestalt, with a rhythm of its own. In the sculpture "Space Modulator," rhythm can be read as (a forward) movement--"power--balance--imbalance," "turning and whirling." Let us take a closer look at these motions, enumerated just below, and (see also Figure 6) following the interpretation model presented:

(l) The form sequence of the "Space Modulator" illustrates the starting point of Gun's dancing sequence, a whirling movement with a light upward jump. The material properties of the sculpture provide the ground. The quadratic disc can stand both on its edge and its head. There is also a sequence: a palpable attack in the forward-pointing disc's first move that dissolves into an active middle space, then sliding onwards in a movement towards regained balance. Note that the movement might be both small and large, as "Space Modulator" can be performed monumental--then we would be able to move between the shapes that create spaces.

(2) The character of the sculpture is based on the contrast heavy--light. A shape stands on edge and falls to regain balance or posture. In the body, this would feel like walking on your hands or doing a cartwheel! At the end of the sequence, however, balance is regained.

(3) The character has a specific affect, characterized by playful contrast between stable--unstable, and which depends on the beholder's own experience of her/his own body.

(4) The final interpretation is due to the sculpture's place in the surrounding space.


In this article, we have aimed to 1. define aesthetic rhythm and 2. relate it to the human body. Further, 3. we have shown that form patterns are the same for spatial and temporal rhythm in art works. We have also 4. demonstrated a model for rhythmic meaning production.

As we have shown, "rhythm" is a form of perception that governs the experience of as well as the production of artifacts. "Rhythm" in an art work signifies a play with temporal or spatial proportions within the perception of a gestalt or gesture, a play of directions that includes reaching a focus. A limited movement seems to be the base of any aesthetic rhythm.

Cognitive schemas shape the perception of impulses, the perceived relations between masses, stresses, and deviations. In this process, the motoric patterns are decisive. The cognitive schemas emanate out of the sensorimotor cortex and create significant patterns for movements. In that way, movement is a dominating force in all perception. "Rhythm" might be understood as represented movement.

We have shown how BALANCE is the cognitive schema specific for works of art. The BALANCE schema is subordinated to FORCE. "Rhythm" in an art work might be said to signify the play between balance and the deviation from balance. We have also pointed at different biorhythms as models for aesthetic rhythm--like pulse, breathing, and especially walking. The experience of rhythm should be colored by bodily recognition, such as the balance of walking, the joy or anger of a jump, the safety of regular heartbeats. We propose that human biorhythms dominate the form schemas of different rhythms--temporal as well as spatial.

"Rhythm" might be looked upon as bodily principles of order. We have traced the concept of "embodiment" as significant within cognitive aesthetics as well as phenomenology. These two traditions both seem to zoom in on the human body as the basis of aesthetic experience. The focused attention, typical for art production as well as perception, means that a piece of art can never be a pure object, and there is never a distinct limit between man and artwork.

Rhythm patterns seem to be the same for spatial and temporal art forms. We have used different notation systems, but they could easily be transformed into each other. Cognitive schemas shape the perception of impulses, the relationship between masses, stresses, and deviations--in the sound qualities of music and poetry, in the visual qualities of painting, sculpture, and architecture. We have noticed that cognitive schemas must be premodal (or cross-modal), which might explain why rhythm in sculpture and rhythm in poetry can be handled in much the same way. The balance of a sculpture emanates out of l. dynamic tensions, and 2. repeated sequences, both perceived in time. The balance of a poem emanates out of l. repeated sequences, and 2. dynamic tensions in stress pattern, semantics, and typography.

In everyday life, signification has always been ascribed to rhythms. Just think of the power of good rock 'n' roll. Here we have constructed a model for the process of meaning production starting with the biorhythms. We argue that a piece of art always signifies with the help of the silent methods of the body rhythms, coloring life with feeling and attitude.

EVA LILJA, professor emerita in literature at Gothenburg University, Sweden. Among other things, she has written Svensk Metrik [Swedish Metrics] (2006) on behalf of the Swedish Academy. Her last published title is Poesiens Rytmik [Rhythm in Modernist Poetry] (2014) introducing cognitive poetics in Sweden. E-mail:

LENA HOPSCH, PhD, senior lecturer, is a teacher and researcher at Chalmers University of Technology, Department of Architecture, Sweden. She is also affiliated as associate professor in design at the Faculty of fine, applied and performing arts, University of Gothenburg. Her research aims for good design of the physical environment.

Lena Hopsch


Eva Lilja



(1.) "Modality" can be defined as sign systems or technologies for representation.

(2.) Compare with the concept of prolongation in Cureton 146-53.

(3.) Compare with Tsur's ideas about rapid and slow categorization in the reception! Tsur, Cognitive Poetics 5771

(4.) The somewhat vague category of "cognitive subconscious" has been widely discussed, for example, in Zlatev, "Embodiment, Language, and Mimesis" 308-18.

(5.) For a discussion of Varela's view, see Johnson and Rohrer, "We Are Live Creatures."

(6.) Starr has mapped aesthetic experience as neurology processes in her Feeling Beauty.

(7.) Here we are using the Old Greek names for different rhythmical figures. Lilja, Svensk Metrik 366. Iamb--weak syllable followed by one stress, oO.

(8.) The time span of the eco memory, half a second, is a common aesthetic denomination Spitzer.

(9.) Johnson, The Body in the Mind xix, and Johnson, The Meaning of the Body l36f: "An image schema is a dynamic, recurring pattern of organism-environment interactions."

(10.) Yet another comparison between sculpture and poetry is made in Hopsch and Lilja, "Rhythm and Balance."

(11.) Johnson, The Body in the Mind xix, and different articles in Hampe, From Perception to Meaning.

(12.) Notice that "motion" is an aspect of the FORCE schema--the schema underlying the reflexions of this article.

(13.) Johnson and others refer to psychological experiments to prove what they call "cross-modality." Johnson, The Meaning of the Body 143. Compare with Rohrer for neural aspects.

(14.) Also look at the comparison between the visual and the audible poem in Lilja, "Oyvind Fahlstrom's Bord."

(15.) If we turn from semiotics to cognitive aesthetics, the image schemas with its base in sensorimotor cortex inevitably must produce (embodied) signification. Rohrer, 165,173.

(16.) Compare with Lakoff and Johnson 139f, and the importance they ascribe motion.

(17.) In his dissertation, Svensson expands the concept of iconicity into extensive semantization according to Peirce's semiotics. Svensson.

(18.) The one stress of 1.16 "-pend-" is a root that means "hanging," or "falling." Looking at the parallel position of 1.8 we will find its opposition, "rising." In that way "dependable" closes the balance of this poem. Margaret Freeman, personal communication.

(19.) Compare Oskar Schlemmer's choreographies at Triadic Ballet, Bauhaus Buhne, in the twenties.


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Caption: Figure 1 * Tight rope walker Helena Kagermark. Photo by Michael Hopsch.

Caption: Figure 2 * Vasily Kandinsky (b. 1866, Moscow; d. 1944, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France), Composition 8, July 1923. Oil on canvas, 55 1/8 x 79 1/8 inches (140 x 201 cm). Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, By gift. 37.262.

Caption: Figure 4 * Choreographer Gun Lund's dance improvisation. Photo by Lena Hopsch.

Caption: Figure 5 * Sketches for the sculpture "Space Modulator" by Lena Hopsch.

Caption: Figure 6. The Step--Force, Graphic Sign, and Spatial Sign.

Caption: Figure 7 * Model of the sculpture "Space Modulator" by Lena Hopsch. Photo by Michael Hopsch.
Figure 3 * Axis balance and seesaw balance. Both of them can
be recognized in the rhythms of poems as well as sculptures.


     The clear weather of juniper       3   o OO o / o O oo
2    darkened into winter.              2   O ooo O o
     She fed gin to sloes               2   oo O o O
4    and sealed the glass container.    3   o O o O o O o

     When I unscrewed it                2   o O o O o
6    I smelled the disturb              2   o O oo O >
     tart stillness of a bush           3   OO ooo O
8    rising through the pantry.         2   O ooo O o

     When I poured it                   1   oo O o
10   it had a cutting edge              2   ooo O o O
     and flamed                         1   o O
12   like Betelgeuse.                   2   o O o O

     I drink to you                     2   o O o O
14   in smoke-mirled, blue->            3   o OO / o
     black sloes, bitter >              3   OO / O o
16   and dependable.                    1   oo O oo

Stressed syllable     O

Unstressed syllable   o

Less stress           OO

Enjambment            >

Phrase shift          /

Rising rhymthms       oO oO or ooO ooO and so on

Falling rhythms       Oo Oo or Ooo Ooo and so on

lamb                  oO

Sponde                OO

Molossus              OOO
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Author:Hopsch, Lena; Lilja, Eva
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUIR
Date:Dec 22, 2017
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